Western Trips

Thursday, May 17, 2012

John Muir Home / Muir National Park

The John Muir National Historic Site located in Martinez California preserves the Victorian house and a part of the fruit ranch where the naturalist and preservationist John Muir lived from 1890 to his death in 1914. The historic site was established in 1964. While John Muir lived in Martinez, in 1916 he worked on the very foundations for the creation of the National Park Service. In a large way, the history of the National Parks is a history of John Muir.

john muir home
John Muir home in Martinez, CA
John Muir, born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland, on the North Sea, emigrated to the United States and on to Wisconsin in 1848, at the age of ten years. John Muir had a fairly harsh early life working on the family farm with a strict father who insisted he memorize the Holy Bible.

 It was from that harsh beginning that Muir gradually wandered away to read and pursue subjects that caught his interest. Those subjects were primarily found in the realm of mechanization and nature.  John Muir was certainly not wealthy as a young man. He worked in sawmills, a factory, on farms and as a sheepherder. Ironically, his first acquaintance with what today is Yosemite National Park was while working with a man who was trying to construct a sawmill.

The John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez highlights the life and accomplishments of Muir from about 42 years of age on. The Victorian home site where visitors can now tour throughout was originally built by Muir's father in-law, Dr. Strentzel, who had come to California during the Gold Rush era. Built in the Italianate style, the house had all the modern conveniences including gas lighting, coal burning fireplaces and flush toilets. The home had a phone installed in 1885.

In 1880, Muir married  Louie Wanda Strentzel, the daughter of this doctor and fruit grower in Martinez. At the time, Louie's father had a 2,600 acre ranch. The 8.8 acre John Muir National Historic Site today in Martinez California, preserves the house where Muir lived with his wife and two daughters, Wanda and Helen.

At first, John and his wife Louie lived in the Strentzel's original home about one mile south of the mansion. When Dr. Strentzel died in 1890, Louie's mother asked her and John to join her in the new larger house. John Muir and his family lived on the mansions second floor. The 17 room mansion in the Alhambra Valley which Dr. Strentzel built in 1882, was his wife's ultimate inheritance.

John Muir in Martinez CA

john muir kitchen refrigerator
Early refrigerator in Muir kitchen
John Muir worked as ranch manager for his father-in-law for about ten years and during that time was able to amass $250,000 which was quite a fortune. That money allowed him to retire at 42 years of age and devote the remainder of his life to the movement to save America's natural resources.

Among his accomplishments were his influence to urge the U.S. Government to set aside public lands for future generations to enjoy. In this same vein were his efforts to help found the Sierra Club of which he served as it's first president. John Muir was credited with writing over 300 magazine articles and 12 books. Writings by John Muir included My First Summer in the Sierra, The Mountains of California and A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. At the time of his death, in 1914 Muir was writing a book about his Alaska travels. It was said that at the time of his death he had enough notes prepared for perhaps ten additional books.

John Muir The Inventor

What some might not realize was that John Muir was an inventor as well as a preservationist. As a youngster on the Wisconsin farm, Muir constructed many devices including water-wheels, thermometers, hygrometers, clocks, automatic horse feeders, and an "early-rising machine," a device that dumped the sleeper out of bed at a set time.

One of his earlier inventions was a "clockwork desk.  Most of his earlier devices had to be constructed early in the morning or late at night to avoid the wrath of his strict father. In the book about John Muir, Rediscovering America by author Frederick Turner, the author points out that the motivation for Muir's inventing and tinkering around had more to do with the fun of it and as a way to forget the mind numbing drudgery of the farm work rather than trying to build something of practical use.

While his father preferred quite strongly that John should be studying scripture each evening, the young Muir hid in the basement working on his contraptions. One of these devices was actually a very large thermometer which while hung on the barn wall could be read while working down below in the fields.

muir home solarium
Solarium in John Muir Home
In the John Muir biography of 1913, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, Muir described his clockwork desk invention which he used in his college dorm room...I invented a desk in which the books I had to study were arranged in order at the beginning of each term. I also made a bed which set me on my feet every morning at the hour determined on, and in dark winter mornings just as the bed set me on the floor it lighted a lamp. Then, after the minutes allowed for dressing had elapsed, a click was heard and the first book to be studied was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk, thrown open, and allowed to remain there the number of minutes required. Then the machinery closed the book and allowed it to drop back into its stall, then moved the rack forward and threw up the next in order, and so on, all the day being divided according to the times of recitation, and time required and allotted to each study.

Touring the John Muir Historic Site

john muir riding saddle
John Muir's riding saddle exhibit
Some of the interesting things you'll tour in the home today is the kitchen with it's coal fired stove and the carving table. Both of these items are the originals from the Muir era. In the rear on the first floor is a room with it's original long sliding door which was also used as an examining room and office by Dr. Strentzel. In the living room is the brick fireplace that John Muir had rebuilt as a result of damage from the 1906 earthquake.

A tour of the second floor shows the bedroom arrangement and in the front portion is a room that John Muir used as his office. The desk facing the front window of that room features Muir's own desk.

An interesting photo in the house shows the front porch area where two small palm trees were sitting during the first decade of the 1900's. Today, you'll still see those same two trees however they are now towering palms located at each side of the steps leading to the front porch.

Two additional short trips we've featured on Western Trips that you'll find interesting in the San Francisco Bay area are a visit to the USS Hornet floating museum in Alameda and a tour of the famous Mare Island which was the U.S. Navy's first Pacific Coast shipyard.

Also, see our travel article on Beautiful Tomales Bay California.

The John Muir National Historic Site is located at the Alhambra exit on Hwy 4 in Martinez California. The site is administered by the National Park Service. The tour of the home and grounds are very interesting both in relation to the life and times of America's premiere preservationist and naturalist John Muir and of life in the in this region of northern California during the late 1800's and early 1900's. It's a great stop and an excellent addition to your San Francisco area vacation planner.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)

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